Speckled wood

When you have spent hours making square wooden-frames, levelling them in the ground and securing them into posts, then filling them with concrete under time pressure, there is a definite sense of pride and achievement when you measure the levels and find that there is only an 8mm variation over all fifteen concrete pads that were laid. It’s very exciting now we have the foundations for the barn in place and can move onto the task of building it. But last week, when we began to lay out the wood for the barn and we were surrounded by the fluttering forms of butterflies, I felt a different kind of achievement, a feeling of reparation, of relief, of worthwhile contribution. There were more butterflies in the wood than I have ever seen there before, everywhere I looked they were moving through the tree branches, alighting and resting on the damp woodland floor, or circling each other in spiral dances as they moved up through the air of the clearings. We saw comma, red admiral and green-veined white butterflies, but most of the butterflies were speckled woods.

Early in the last century, speckled wood butterflies were extinct in the area around our woodland. Fortunately, they began to recolonise later in the century and now we are at the edge of their expanding northern range in England. They are beautiful butterflies, brown with pale cream markings. The caterpillar too is attractive; a bright lime green, with pale and dark stripes running the length of the body. The butterflies are honeydew grazers, spending their time feeding in the treetops. They like a damp woodland habitat, partial shade with a mosaic of light-pools. The caterpillar feeds on grasses, so a woodland clearing with long grass is ideal.

Though a speckled wood is a relatively common sight in our county these days, the dramatic increase in numbers in the wood reflects our work in making clearings and making space for the grasses on which the caterpillars feed. I am encouraged; where common butterflies arrive, more threatened species may follow. It shows the wood is moving in the right direction, that we are making some of the right choices. And it gives pleasure to simply enjoy the flight of the butterflies. For a few hours in the late summer sunlight, I felt like I was walking in a tropical glasshouse, catching glimpses of butterfly after butterfly. They moved in the periphery of my vision and alighted on the ground where we were working. It is a long time since I have seen so many butterflies in one place – hopefully their numbers will continue to grow. This feeling is more than the satisfaction gained from levelling concrete pads. I am part of my family team that has made a small difference; our wood, once more, provides a habitat and home for the speckled wood butterfly.